11/8/2010 | 11 MINUTE READ

Learning From Walt Disney

“I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”—Walt Disney
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When Walt Disney first penned Mickey Mouse in 1928, he was financially at the end of his rope.


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When Walt Disney first penned Mickey Mouse in 1928, he was financially at the end of his rope. He created the character during a train ride from New York to Los Angeles, after learning his original cartoon creation, Oswald the Rabbit, had been taken from him by Universal Studios and his former business partner in a battle over money. With his future uncertain, Walt began to think about what could be next. Which led to the character he originally called “Mortimer” (his wife convinced Walt to call him “Mickey”). Little did Walt know that his mouse would have a lasting impact that goes far beyond cartoons, and that it would transform Disney into one of the most trusted and respected business leaders in the world.

Detroit’s automakers are at a point not unlike Walt’s during that train ride. After spending several years trying numerous ways to entice customers to buy their products, including using the Wal-Mart approach of offering deep discount prices and even buy-one-get-one free offers, Detroit seems to be wakening to the prospect that marketing and brand loyalty—two traits that make Disney a leader—are the keys to winning the battle on the showroom floor. It would behoove every automotive marketing leader to study Disney and Mickey, as they have built a foundation on developing a respected brand with a relentless focus on customer loyalty.


Laying the Groundwork
When Walt opened Disneyland in 1955, he wanted to create a destination where families could leave the stress and worry of everyday life behind once they entered his carefree, imaginary world. All along, Disney focused on making the experience one that people would remember for the rest of their lives, resulting in word of mouth that would lead people to the gates of his park in droves. “Mickey Mouse isn't actively involved in the project [‘Disneyland'] but his spirit is very much around. We often ask, ‘Now would Mickey approve of this?’” Walt told Look magazine. More than 40 years after Walt’s death, Disney remains committed to the principles of its founder.


The fight to gain consumer loyalty remains elusive to some automakers, and the lack of understanding how to connect with those who spend thousands of dollars for transportation could jeopardize the longevity of some OEMs. While consumers still remain concerned about overall vehicle quality levels, facts indicate that automaker’s are within striking distance of each other when it comes to initial and long-term vehicle quality. So while there may be quality parity, there is a bigger question: What about standing out from the crowd and becoming a true innovator when it comes to vehicle branding, marketing and customer communications? The companies that answer this one correctly will attract customers who are looking for more than just another way to get from point A-to-B.

The Walt Disney Co. has managed to carve a niche for itself in the resort and amusement business as a customer service leader. What’s interesting is that the company doesn’t offer attractions that are necessarily better than those offered by some of its competitors. In fact, some people consider Disney’s attractions pretty tame compared to the thrillrides at other parks. Its resorts are not unlike other properties found in other destinations.
So what’s the difference? It’s Disney’s attention to detail, consistency and drive to constantly exceed expectations. These same philosophies can change the way consumers perceive automobiles.

Which led me to the Disney Institute in Orlando, an organization that was developed to help businesses and individuals learn—through more than 1,000 workshops and class sessions held annually—how to use Disney’s trusted customer service, branding and leadership skills in their own organizations. Speaking of automotive, Bruce Jones, director of Disney Institute, says, “There’s an opportunity that now exists to reinvent this industry. The healthcare industry is trying to do it, as is the airline industry. The automotive industry has to do the same thing. It’s the whole philosophy of treating people like guests and thinking through their entire experience. You have to build your systems and processes to deliver on that and reap the benefits. These are not rocket-science ideas but they are easy to think about and among the hardest to do consistently on an ongoing basis.” So I signed up for a 3-1/2-day quality service standards session to learn what he meant.

From the start, creating the best guest experience and exceeding expectations were ingrained into the Disney culture. And this started from the top (e.g., Walt) down. Many companies today focus more on cutting costs and pinching pennies when it comes to products rather than trying to understand the real benefit those few cents may add in terms of customer delight and loyalty.

Who does Disney study when it comes to service? Bruce Jones, director of Disney Institute, says the benchmarks for Disney include Ritz-Carlton, McDonald’s and the Four Seasons hotels. He personally admires Commerce Bank in New Jersey (www.commerceonline.com), Chick Fil-A (www.chick-fil-a.com) and Boeing (www.boeing.com). About Boeing, he remarks, “Their premise focusing on the reinvention of the transportation experience through redesigning an airplane is a radical approach”.

Building Bridges
An example of Disney’s thinking: When guests at Disney’s Magic Kingdom complained they could not get around the daily parade to take advantage of shorter lines at some of the most popular rides, the company spent more than $26-million to build a bridge that circumvented the parade route. Looked at from a pure accounting perspective, it would probably have been impossible to realize an ROI from the expenditure. But Disney management knew that without the bridge, the number of complaints would only grow. So they rationalized the expense by taking a broader view of the situation, one that took long-term customer satisfaction into account.


“Think about this for a minute: It costs more money for a company to acquire new customers than it does to keep old ones,” Jones says. So by keeping its customers satisfied, Disney World has managed to get a repeat visitor rate of more than 70% and hotel occupancy of more than 90%. “Cost has been a major focus of our organization. But we look at it a little differently. We take a longer view of things and that helps us to remember the focus,” Jones says.

Another example of the long-term view: After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks Disney—which is represented by 18 different unions and 11 collective bargaining agreements (Mickey Mouse is a Teamster)—made a commitment to not layoff any of its resort staff even as reservations and park revenue took a hit. “We get a lot more accomplished out of commitment than compliance and that philosophy comes from the top down,” Jones says.

Doing Right from the Inside
Disney applies the same focus on the guest experience to its own operations, where cast members (employees) are required to meet a strict set of requirements when it comes to appearance, friendliness and accountability. The company admits it doesn’t pay the highest salaries in the resort and amusement park industry, nor does it offer exceptional benefits, but it does provide staff with the freedom to provide guests with whatever they need to make their experience memorable. “If you want to have a friendly organization you have to hire friendly people,” says Jones. “That’s easier said than done in most cases, but we make sure people know that’s what this organization is all about—being friendly to our guests”. Disney rejects on average two out of every three applicants for its front-line entry-level positions, and more than 99 resumes are rejected for each salaried job. “We make sure people know right off the bat what our principles are and that they don’t even come into Casting [human resources] unless they have an inclination to provide those,” Jones adds.

Disney requires each front-line job applicant to view a video during their initial visit that outlines the appearance, transportation and compen-sation requirements for the job. If the applicant feels they cannot meet those, they are asked to leave. The company then immerses each job applicant in its “Traditions” program, which dives deeper into Disney’s culture and applicants are again told to bow out if they have any doubts. Finally, cast members that pass Traditions and get on the front line must strictly adhere to Disney’s goals or they are given reprimands. Three reprimands in a year results in being shown the door.

Disney holds its outside suppliers, including several that run its resort facilities, to the same exacting standards of its cast. Suppliers are required to sign a contract outlining their commitment to the service standards, and if they are found to violate the standards on three occasions, the contract is void. The company found that one of its resort operators was failing its cleanliness requirements and worked with them to correct the problem, but after a third violation was found, Disney took over the resort operations.

Engineering a Feeling
Brand equity is more than just marketing and casting. Disney uses its attraction engineering (Disney calls them “Imagineers”) staff to develop properties and attractions that immerse the guest in the experience. Every detail from the texture of the pavement used in certain areas of its parks—i.e., yak and horse hoof prints embedded in the cement near the Himalayan area of the Animal Kingdom park, as opposed to coarse cement used in the African section of the park to simulate mud—to the colors used on directional traffic signage, has been well thought out.

Disney believes the setting itself conveys a message about the organization and its values and standards. This doesn’t apply just to the product or customer interface, but to the back office operations, as well. “You can’t change people, but if you change the environment you can change their perception,” is one of the guiding principles of Disney’s philosophy. When Imagineers were developing the Escape from Everest ride for the Animal Kingdom resort, the team traveled to Nepal to study the environment to make the ride more realistic while collecting more than 8,000 artifacts used in the cue for the ride to keep guests entertained while they waited to board.

Close to Perfect
Disney is by no means perfect. “There’s always a risk of things getting mucked up in the process of doing business. Even Disney loses sight of that every once in a while,” Jones admits. Disney stubbed its toe when it opened its theme park in Paris in 1992. The park attracted mediocre crowds after its opening, resulting in a quick study of what was wrong. Guests told the company they wanted the park to be more tailored to the European market, not just another copy of what was in California and Florida. The staff responded by offering guests several unique touches, including the option to buy wine—something you might think would be a no-brainer in France.

Not Our Problem
Organizations routinely fall into the trap of handing off responsibility for a problem when they realize it was caused by some-thing outside of their control. That’s human nature. Disney takes a different approach with the philosophy: “It’s not out fault, but it is our problem.” If a guest happens to lose their wallet or valuable item on a ride, Disney doesn’t throw their hands up and say, “We had a sign that said you should secure your valuables.” The organization is geared to help the guest resolve the problem by searching the ride after operations close or by providing help in making sure the situation doesn’t leave a negative impression on the overall experience.

Likewise, the organization is beginning to think beyond the gates of its parks and stores about how it can improve the experience even more. Jones says Disney is looking at ways it can help build excitement for guests as they pack their bags for their trip. He says automakers should apply the same thinking to their organizations: What do the trucks that deliver the cars to the dealership convey? What about the trucks delivering parts to the factory? Do break rooms keep your employees engaged in the brand? It’s the small stuff that makes the difference.

But even Disney has to remain cautious when it comes to assuring its values live on for the next generation of guests. The company has grown to include broadcast, cruise lines and other entertainment businesses. This expansion could mean one of Disney’s future leaders could be a broadcast executive, not someone from film or the parks. “If we stay true to Walt’s ideals, we’ll probably be in good shape and I think they are so ingrained in the organization that we will be well positioned to carry on,” Jones says.

Words of Wisdom from Walt
“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.”

“Well, I think by this time my staff, my young group of executives, and everything else, are convinced that Walt is right. That quality will win out. And so I think they’re going to stay with that policy because it’s proved that it’s a good policy. Give the people everything you can give them. Keep the place as clean as you can keep it. Keep it friendly, you know. Make it a real fun place to be. I think they’re convinced and I think they’ll hang on after as you say…well…after Disney.”